In December, 1863, a detachment of eighty Federal cavalrymen set out on a hundred mile trek north from Brownsville. A portion of the detachment included members of the 1st and 2nd Texas Union Cavalry, Texans who opposed the Confederacy and had sided with the Union. Their objective was a ranch just off the southern coast of Texas near Corpus Christi. On December 23, they galloped through the front gate. The owner, Richard King, was warned three days earlier. Thinking his pregnant wife, Henrietta, and their four children would be safer if he left the ranch; King placed them under the care of a faithful hand, Francisco Alvarado. Under the command of Captain James Speed, the troopers ransacked the ranch house in front of Henrietta and shot Francisco dead. Speed warned the father in law, Hiram Chamberlain: “You tell King that if one bale of cotton is carried away from here or burned, I will hold him responsible with his life.” After rustling some of King’s cattle for their trip back, they left. Speed’s warning would only elicit defiance. “They were worse afraid than the ladies of the house,” King sneered after learning of the attack. He continued his operations that would make him one of the wealthiest men in Texas and a legend in the cattle industry, smuggling cotton through Mexico for Confederate arms.
Because of the Union naval blockade off the Gulf coast, the Confederacy sought alternative sources for arms and supplies. Mexico, a neutral foreign country with a long border, became a prime source. For the Trans-Mississippi states of Texas, Arkansas, and Louisiana, this took on a note of desperation after the Mississippi River was captured by Union forces. To purchase supplies, cotton was the only medium of exchange readily available and outside of gold, the only one accepted by foreign suppliers.
The problem was getting the cotton there. Texas had a small rail network that went only as far south as Alleyton, fifty miles west from Houston. Wagons carried the cotton from there to Brownsville, a month-long trip over semi-arid terrain with little sustenance for mules and oxen. Because of bandits and Comanche war parties, armed outriders accompanied the wagon trains. The King Ranch served as a depot (some would say an oasis) on the wagons’ tortuous trail. After reaching Brownsville, the cotton was ferried across the Rio Grande to Matamoros. From there it was carried east by river steamer and wagon to Bagdad, a seedy, ramshackle boomtown near the mouth of the Rio Grande. A Texas pastor decried Bagdad as “a veritable Babel, a Babylon, a whirlpool of business, pleasure, and sin. A common laborer could easily gain from five to six dollars per day, while a man who owned a skiff or a lighter could make from twenty to forty dollars. The saloon and hotel keepers were reaping an abundant harvest. The Gulf, for three or four miles out, was literally a forest of masts.”
Those masts belonged to European and American ships. Inspired by greed, some Northern ship owners buried their loyalties and shipped munitions out of Union states. Munitions destined for Texas! In one of the Civil War’s strangest episodes, the New York ship, “Alfred H. Partridge,” was overtaken by the Confederate raider, “Clarence.” Bound for Matamoros, the ship was carrying arms for the Confederacy. Upon learning of the ship’s destination, the “Clarence’s” skipper released the “Alfred H. Partridge” under a $5,000 bonded promise to deliver its cargo to the “loyal citizens of the Confederate States.”
Because of the shallow waters off the Mexican coast, steamboats brought the cotton out from Bagdad to the ships. They returned with arms and supplies. Most of the steamboats were owned by two former New Yorkers, Mifflin Kenedy and cattle rancher Richard King. Formed in 1850, M. Kenedy and Co. had a monopoly on steamboat operations from Brownsville to the mouth of the Rio Grande. To prevent seizure by Union warships, the partners placed their boats under Mexican registry. The Federal Navy could only watch as steamboat after steamboat brought in supplies and ammo in exchange for cotton.
To smooth things over in Mexico, Monterrey resident and Confederate representative J.A. Quintero established or tried to establish relations with Mexico’s corrupt border governors. Santiago Vidaurri, Governor of both Nuevo Leon and Coahuila, controlled a major portion of the cotton routes in Mexico. Realizing the economic opportunities, Vidaurri was more than anxious to establish friendly relations with the Confederacy. Friendly relations, however, couldn’t stave off export and import duties imposed on the outbound cotton and inbound military supplies, not to mention the storage fees, transport fees, outright bribes, and extorted tariffs from border warlords who sometimes seized the shipments.
Another important figure in the cotton trade was Confederate Major Simeon Hart, the Trans-Mississippi Department’s purchasing agent. An El Paso native with a Mexican wife, Hart had extensive connections in Mexico. Hart’s palatial home eventually became El Paso’s famed La Hacienda Cafe. Unfortunately, it’s closed. It was Hart that helped supply Texas’ ill-fated expedition into New Mexico. While working every branch of his network to get arms, Hart would sometimes impress civilian cotton bales to pay for needed supplies, causing a huge uproar among Texas planters.
Eventually, President Lincoln had to act. As a further inducement, France occupied Mexico after President Benito Juarez suspended foreign debt payments. Afraid of a possible alliance with the Confederacy, Lincoln felt a Union presence on the Rio Grande would deter any French meddling. In November, 1863, ten thousand Union troops under General Nathaniel Banks landed near Brownsville and occupied the city. Hundreds of cotton bales were put to the torch to prevent their use by Federal forces.
Union forces slowed the cotton trade but didn’t completely stop it; the cotton routes were simply moved west to Eagle Pass and Laredo. Banks simply didn’t have the manpower to cover the entire length of the Rio Grande. In addition, South Texas had an ally in Union Army Chief of Staff Henry Halleck who felt the invasion was too difficult to maintain in far off South Texas and wouldn’t accomplish anything. Instead, he favored an expedition up the Red River in Louisiana and entrance into East Texas via Shreveport. New England politicians, such a Massachusetts Governor John A. Andrew, wanted East Texas cotton for their states’ idle textile mills. Lt. General Ulysses S. Grant had the final word on the matter; he ordered Banks to leave five months after he landed. What forces remained in Brownsville were shoved off the mainland by Colonel John S. (Rip) Ford’s “Cavalry of the West.” For the remainder of the war, Texas was Union free and the cotton trade continued. The Union maintained a presence on Brazos Santiago, a five mile stretch of sand in the Gulf near the mouth of the Rio Grande.
Despite their best efforts, the Confederacy still couldn’t obtain enough arms to outfit all their troops. Some units in Arkansas and the Indian Territory had no arms whatsoever; the demand greatly exceeded the supply. After the Confederacy fell, the cotton trade collapsed. As a show of strength to the French, U.S. troops, under General Phil Sheridan, were rushed into the border region. Bagdad, which once had a wartime population of 15,000, was totally abandoned by 1880. No structures stand today, just beach umbrellas, volleyball nets and vendor huts selling Coronas. It is now a popular beach named appropriately Playa Bagdad.